Unreal Nature

September 6, 2017

This Lack of Belonging

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… “Some speak of a return to nature,” Sommer wrote. “I wonder where they could have been.”

Continuing through Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (2015)

Weston insisted that the receptivity and judgment necessary to take advantage of chance were more important than chance itself. Following Stieglitz, he argued that preparation, diligence, and experience could yield a special sensitivity to accidental beauty, resulting in an improbably high rate of success in producing compelling photographs. His work, he said, amounted to “disproving chance.” Or rather, chance in photography was like chance in the other arts, an occasion to find inspiration in an unexpected source that would mean nothing to a less perceptive mind.

Weston claimed to find humble pleasure in accepting nature’s proffer rather than inventing his own forms. “I get greater joy,” he writes, “from finding things in Nature, already composed, than I do from my finest personal arrangements.”

Sommer learned from [his friend] Weston selectively. He desired other visual experiences from chance. In particular, he rejected Weston’s tendency to use contour as a stable boundary between object and background. Long after the war, he noted that the subjects of Weston’s photographs were “beautifully placed” but “still somewhat parked there.” “When [Weston] was doing a pelican,” he added, “that pelican didn’t belong in there just the way it could have.” According to Sommer, this lack of belonging was a function of photographically according the subject a privileged condition.

… He suggests that his work departs from Weston’s by more successfully breaking down the boundaries of the privileged condition (the “great enemy”) and thus more successfully representing the ordinarily invisible particulate processes that permeate all matter.

Sommer was not criticizing him for violating a code of so-called straight practice; rather, he was noting that the pictorial fantasy of the privileged condition requires suppressing the exchanges between a subject and its surroundings. To represent the privileged subject in isolation, as Weston did, was a ruse because it fostered misunderstanding. Sommer opened a seminar with this announcement: “The greatest trick in the world would be to show that things are disconnected.”

Frederick Sommer, Jack Rabbit, 1939

… [at that time] the American photographic establishment generally disapproved of rearranging things before the lens. A journalistic ethos had emerged that deemed the photographer an honest witness, whose testimony could be tainted by staging or handling. At the very least, the photographer was supposed to make any manipulation clear to avoid breaching trust. “This was done of course with no manual arrangement,” assures Weston in one of his daybooks. Sommer rejected this ethos outright. For him, the distinction between witnessing and manipulating was irrelevant.

[line break added] “Some people are very uncomfortable when they can’t tell whether I put something together or found it that way. But why should they be against putting things together? This is like people who don’t want to be cured by anything other than a natural medicine. They can’t accept the synthetic compound that might cure them even better. They would rather drown in natural things.” Sommer’s rejection of witnessing as an ideal for photography was essential to his modernism. Witnessing presupposes a rift between photographer and world that his practice contradicted at every turn.

[line break added] According to that practice, material processes of exchange pervade both photographic subjects and photographic craft, both he sand-particulate desert and the silver-particulate print. These exchanges, always composing and decomposing, forever entangle photographer and subject. From this perspective of entanglements, the pristine nature exalted by Ansel Adams and his followers falsely cordoned off humanity from an encompassing ecology. “Some speak of a return to nature,” Sommer wrote. “I wonder where they could have been.”

My most recent previous post from Kelsey’s book is here.




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